Skip to comments.James Madison Letter to General Washington
Posted on 06/16/2012 12:52:03 PM PDT by Jacquerie
Two hundred and twenty five years ago, and one month before the Philadelphia Convention, aka the Constitutional Convention, Congressional delegate James Madison responded to a letter from George Washington.
He offered thoughts on his new plan of government, the Virginia Plan. Compared to the Articles of Confederation it was radical, yet it was structurally close enough to the mixed governments of the States to be familiar as well. It would emerge in modified form five months later as The Constitution of the United States of America.
To George Washington
New York, April 16 1787
I have been honoured with your letter of the 31 of March, and find with much pleasure that your views of the reform which ought to be pursued by the Convention, give a sanction to those which I have entertained. Temporising applications will dishonor the Councils which propose them, and may foment the internal malignity of the disease, at the same time that they produce an ostensible palliation of it. Radical attempts, although unsuccessful, will at least justify the authors of them.
Having been lately led to revolve the subject which is to undergo the discussion of the Convention, and formed in my mind some outlines of a new system, I take the liberty of submitting them without apology, to your eye.
Conceiving that an individual independence of the States is utterly irreconcileable with their aggregate sovereignty; and that a consolidation of the whole into one simple republic would be as inexpedient as it is unattainable, I have sought for some middle ground, which may at once support a due supremacy of the national authority, and not exclude the local authorities wherever they can be subordinately useful.
I would propose as the ground-work that a change be made in the principle of representation. According to the present form of the Union in which the intervention of the States is in all great cases necessary to effectuate the measures of Congress, an equality of suffrage, does not destroy the inequality of importance, in the several members. No one will deny that Virginia and Massts. have more weight and influence both within & without Congress than Delaware or Rho. Island. Under a system which would operate in many essential points without the intervention of the State legislatures, the case would be materially altered. A vote in the national Councils from Delaware, would then have the same effect and value as one from the largest State in the Union. I am ready to believe that such a change would not be attended with much difficulty. A majority of the States, and those of greatest influence, will regard it as favorable to them. To the Northern States it will be recommended by their present populousness; to the Southern by their expected advantage in this respect. The lesser States must in every event yield to the predominant will. But the consideration which particularly urges a change in the representation is that it will obviate the principal objections of the larger States to the necessary concessions of power.
I would propose next that in addition to the present federal powers, the national Government should be armed with positive and compleat authority in all cases which require uniformity; such as the regulation of trade, including the right of taxing both exports & imports, the fixing the terms and forms of naturalization, &c &c.
Over and above this positive power, a negative in all cases whatsoever on the legislative acts of the States, as heretofore exercised by the Kingly prerogative, appears to me to be absolutely necessary, and to be the least possible encroachment on the State jurisdictions. Without this defensive power, every positive power that can be given on paper will be evaded & defeated. The States will continue to invade the national jurisdiction, to violate treaties and the law of nations & to harrass each other with rival and spiteful measures dictated by mistaken views of interest. Another happy effect of this prerogative would be its controul on the internal vicisitudes of State policy; and the aggressions of interested majorities on the rights of minorities and of individuals. The great desideratum which has not yet been found for Republican Governments, seems to be some disinterested & dispassionate umpire in disputes between different passions & interests in the State. The majority who alone have the right of decision, have frequently an interest real or supposed in abusing it. In Monarchies the sovereign is more neutral to the interests and views of different parties; but unfortunately he too often forms interests of his own repugnant to those of the whole. Might not the national prerogative here suggested be found sufficiently disinterested for the decision of local questions of policy, whilst it would itself be sufficiently restrained from the pursuit of interests adverse to those of the whole Society? There has not been any moment since the peace at which the representatives of the union would have given an assent to paper money or any other measure of a kindred nature.
The national supremacy ought also to be extended as I conceive to the Judiciary departments. If those who are to expound & apply the laws, are connected by their interests & their oaths with the particular States wholly, and not with the Union, the participation of the Union in the making of the laws may be possibly rendered unavailing. It seems at least necessary that the oaths of the Judges should include a fidelity to the general as well as local constitution, and that an appeal should lie to some national tribunals in all cases to which foreigners or inhabitants of other States may be parties. The admiralty jurisdiction seems to fall entirely within the purview of the national Government.
The national supremacy in the Executive departments is liable to some difficulty, unless the officers administering them could be made appointable by the supreme Government. The Militia ought certainly to be placed in some form or other under the authority which is entrusted with the general protection and defence.
A Government composed of such extensive powers should be well organized and balanced. The Legislative department might be divided into two branches; one of them chosen every years by the people at large, or by the legislatures; the other to consist of fewer members, to hold their places for a longer term, and to go out in such a rotation as always to leave in office a large majority of old members. Perhaps the negative on the laws might be most conveniently exercised by this branch. As a further check, a council of revision including the great ministerial officers might be superadded.
A national Executive must also be provided. I have scarcely ventured as yet to form my own opinion either of the manner in which it ought to be constituted or of the authorities with which it ought to be cloathed.
An article should be inserted expressly guarantying the tranquillity of the States against internal as well as external dangers.
In like manner the right of coercion should be expressly declared. With the resources of Commerce in hand, the national administration might always find means of exerting it either by sea or land; But the difficulty & awkwardness of operating by force on the collective will of a State, render it particularly desirable that the necessity of it might be precluded. Perhaps the negative on the laws might create such a mutuality of dependence between the General and particular authorities, as to answer this purpose. Or perhaps some defined objects of taxation might be submitted along with commerce, to the general authority.
To give a new System its proper validity and energy, a ratification must be obtained from the people, and not merely from the ordinary authority of the Legislatures. This will be the more essential as inroads on the existing Constitutions of the States will be unavoidable.
The inclosed address to the States on the subject of the Treaty of peace has been agreed to by Congress, & forwarded to the several Executives. We foresee the irritation which it will excite in many of our Countrymen; but could not withhold our approbation of the measure. Both, the resolutions and the address, passed without a dissenting voice.
Congress continue to be thin, and of course do little business of importance. The settlement of the public accounts, the disposition of the public lands, and arrangements with Spain, are subjects which claim their particular attention. As a step towards the first, the treasury board are charged with the task of reporting a plan by which the final decision on the claims of the States will be handed over from Congress to a select set of men bound by the oaths, and cloathed with the powers, of Chancellors. As to the Second article, Congress have it themselves under consideration. Between 6 & 700 thousand acres have been surveyed and are ready for sale. The mode of sale however will probably be a source of different opinions; as will the mode of disposing of the unsurveyed residue. The Eastern gentlemen remain attached to the scheme of townships. Many others are equally strenuous for indiscriminate locations. The States which have lands of their own for sale, are suspected of not being hearty in bringing the federal lands to market. The business with Spain is becoming extremely delicate, and the information from the Western settlements truly alarming.
A motion was made some days ago for an adjournment of Congress for a short period, and an appointment of Philada. for their reassembling. The excentricity of this place as well with regard to E. and West as to N. & South has I find been for a considerable time a thorn in the minds of many of the Southern members. Suspicion too has charged some important votes on the weight thrown by the present position of Congress into the Eastern Scale, and predicts that the Eastern members will never concur in any substantial provision or movement for a proper permanent seat for the national Government whilst they remain so much gratified in its temporary residence. These seem to have been the operative motives with those on one side who were not locally interested in the removal. On the other side the motives are obvious. Those of real weight were drawn from the apparent caprice with which Congress might be reproached, and particularly from the peculiarity of the existing moment. I own that I think so much regard due to these considerations, that notwithstanding the powerful ones on the other side, I should have assented with great repugnance to the motion, and would even have voted against it if any probability had existed that by waiting for a proper time, a proper measure might not be lost for a very long time. The plan which I shd. have judged most eligible would have been to fix on the removal whenever a vote could be obtained but so as that it should not take effect until the commencement of the ensuing federal year. And if an immediate removal had been resolved on, I had intended to propose such a change in the plan. No final question was taken in the case. Some preliminary questions shewed that six States were in favor of the motion. Rho. Island the 7th. was at first on the same side, and Mr. Varnum one of her delegates continues so. His colleague was overcome by the solicitations of his Eastern breathren. As neither Maryland nor South Carolina were on the floor, it seems pretty evident that N. York has a very precarious tenure of the advantages derived from the abode of Congress.
We understand that the discontents in Massts which lately produced an appeal to the sword, are now producing a trial of strength in the field of electioneering. The Governor will be displaced. The Senate is said to be already of a popular complexion, and it is expected the other branch will be still more so. Paper money it is surmised will be the engine to be played off agst. creditors both public and private. As the event of the Elections however is not yet decided, this information must be too much blended with conjecture to be regarded as matter of certainty.
I do not learn that the proposed act relating to Vermont has yet gone through all the stages of legislation here; nor can I say whether it will finally pass or not. In truth, it having not been a subject of conversation for some time, I am unable to say what has been done or is likely to be done with it. With the sincerest affection & the highest esteem I have the honor to be Dear Sir Your devoted Servt.
George Washington was as critical to leading the nation from the hapless Articles of Confederation to the Constitution as he was in leading our Revolutionary Armies to victory over Great Britain. In this letter, James Madison informed General Washington of what to expect in Philadelphia.
For your pinglist, if you please.
Madison I consider a genius and his cause noble, but I have to admit that the anti-federalists were right. Whatever the Constitution is, outline for good government or not, it is not what rules us today. It was not able to prevent an unconstitutional government from taking over, and therefore failed.
To Federalists, we faced impending anarchy, guaranteed to be followed by dissolution or tyranny under the Articles of Confederation. From these near term threats, the Constitution saved us.
To Antis, the Constitution guaranteed near term tyranny.
I think history proved the Federalists correct.
As for our present post-constitutional America, Ben Franklin predicted our Constitution would work well enough for a period of years, but the people would eventually become so corrupted that we would be suited only for despotic government.
A nation can only send so many Sheila Jackson-Lees and Dick Durbins to Congress before it has a detrimental effect. We have only ourselves as a people to blame for the condition of our liberties.
"A Republic . . . if you can keep it."
A lady asked Dr. Franklin Well Doctor what have we got a republic or a monarchy -- A republic replied the Doctor if you can keep it.*
[Note *: * The lady here alluded to was Mrs. Powel of Philada.]
. . . . . Farrands Records, Vol III, pg 85
Thanks for the ping, Publius
If time allows, check out Madison’s ideas for a new government a little closer. Fortunately, some did not make the final cut.
Thanks for the ping; post; thread. Fascinating! History/education BUMP!
A lot of folks don’t realize that Vermont was an independent country from 1777 to 1791. Kind of neat to see it mentioned in correspondence like this.
I’m guessing though they didn’t dream of communicating from one end of a state to the other in seconds, let alone transporting cargo across a country in just a few days, to seeing men and women living and working in space. I don’t mean to denigrate them, but there were probably many things beyond their thoughts of what the future would hold for mankind in general, not referring to anything geopolitical.
They probably couldn’t imagine self-righteous dictators slaughtering tens of millions of their own countrymen just because they thought differently. The kings of their time at least had required someone break a law, such as stealing or adultery before a sentence was handing down. But with what the Communists/Socialists did, it didn’t matter. They just destroyed everything they didn’t like.
As such, I imagine they hoped those elected would police themselves and others, and didn’t write enough shackles on the government into the Constitution, such as term limits right away for either the President or members of Congress. They didn’t write anything saying they may not regulate commerce, whether contained in a state or across state borders. I also feel they didn’t put enough emphasis into the right to bear arms (think about it: how much have the Liberals argued over the first clause, “A well regulated militia - etc?”). I feel the 2nd should’ve only read “The Right of the People to Keep and Bear Arms Shall Not Be Infringed.”
I also feel they should’ve made a long, long list specifically stating what the national government could and could not do.
Again, I don’t want anybody to take what I said as me flaming the Founding Fathers. I just feel like more could have been done to prevent the leviathan government we have today.
That would be Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, FRiend.
That would conflate somewhat a Constitution with a code of law. Most of the delegates to the Philly convention had extensive experience with Constitution making in their home states after independence. Many were also current or former delegates to Congress. We'll never again witness such an incredible assemblage.
From experience under the Articles of Confederation, it was the new government that had everything to fear from the states. Article 1 Section 10 is almost a list of state shenanigans from 1781 to 1787.
T’anks—and again many T’anks. I have read Washington’s letter
to Madison (referenced here dated March 31) both in George Washingotn:Writings ,Library of America,John Rhodehamel Ed.
and in the Hillsdale College work The US Constitution a Reader
but had not read Madison’s reply until you sent this heads up.
So T’anks. And I do so agree with comments about Washington.
I wonder if God will raise up another like him-Or if He will let judgement take its course?
And he was another Virginian educated at Princeton.
The RevWar/Colonial History/General Washington ping list...
Yes, GW does not get the credit he deserves.
|GGG managers are SunkenCiv, StayAt HomeMother & Ernest_at_the_Beach|
>>It was not able to prevent an unconstitutional government from taking over, and therefore failed.<<
And yet we fight for it.
The USC provides the framework for the most liberty man can probably hope for.
Today we fight with words and movements. There may come a time soon when we will need more.
So long as one FReeper and/or Tea Partier draws breath, the USC is not “failed.”
Thank you, Pharmboy, for getting us all together. It is a dry desert here in the Chicago area, for lovers of this time period in our country's history. From the days of reading and collecting Colonial Homes magazines, decorating our home in 18th century style, loving this country and the famous men and women who made it so, wanting to visit the interesting museums and places of historical interest in the South and New England states...for the opportunity to read what other like-minded people have to say about the interests we share, I thank you.
I feel like if we ever had the opportunity, we need to list the things government cannot do as it pertains to current times. Things like unable to regulate the internet for any purpose, unable to regulate health care (because they obviously don’t know how), cannot regulate arms (not just firearms - the much broader tree of arms).
Though that would probably require a Constitutional Convention...
But he also was the most prominent face of Calvinism as represented by the Presbyterian Church in this country. '... Prime Minister Horace Walpole said in Parliament, "Cousin America has run off with a Presbyterian parson" (John Witherspoon, president of Princeton, signer of Declaration of Independence)'.
The Presbyterians and the Congregationalists (in NE), played a large role in catalyzing the Revolution (another Presbyterian minister, James Caldwell in NJ, used pages of the bible as wadding when that became scarce for the troops defending Springfield).
There are some that say that without Calvin, there would be no USA. And full disclosure from me: I am not a Presbyterian, although my grand daughter did just graduate from a Presbyterian Church Pre-K.
Thank you very much.
Your Humble & Obdt. Svt.,
A point I make every time the topic comes up. The Anti-Federalists were right.
Despite the occasional criticism I read here, I think that it is a miracle and evidence of God’s hand that we were so blessed to have a convergence of great minds and strong character just when we needed them: Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Washington, Madison, Hamilton, Monroe, Knox, Henry, and so many more. If we keep praying and working hard, perhaps God will bless us again and help us out of the disaster of the last 4 years.
Until the Civil War, the Federal Government exercised relatively little power over the people. The only federal official the average person saw was the post-master.
This is another point I often make. Abraham Lincoln set the standard for Federal Domination of the States, and we have never recovered from it. Much of our current misery can be traced directly back to his usurpation of many powers during the Civil War. He established the precedent, and others followed. Teddy Roosevelt, Wilson, FDR, Johnson, etc.
“To Antis, the Constitution guaranteed near term tyranny.”
Okay, so it didn’t come immediately. Depending upon what you think of the Bank of America, the Louisiana Purchase, the Jackson administration, etc., I think it’s fair to say it held out for 70 years at least. Maybe you wanna be generous and push it back. Fine, I can make arguments for 1898, 1913, 1917, 1932, 1941, 1947, and so on. Maybe it held out all the way until the present day. Whatever, the point is eventually it was superceded without being replaced as we did with the Articles of Confederation. It is a facade covering another sort of government, and that’s what the antis meant when they said, “I smell a rat!”
The Antis had plenty of time and wrote volumes in protest, yet couldn’t come up with an alternative to the Constitution. They illustrated the ease of criticizing and the difficulty of creating.
“The Antis had plenty of time and wrote volumes in protest, yet couldnt come up with an alternative to the Constitution. They illustrated the ease of criticizing and the difficulty of creating.”
Wait a second, there was a constitution in place at the time. You remember, the one the Constitution illegally (according to it) superceded, called the Articles of Confederation. Which may not have been perfect, but the anti-federalist were under no compunction to come up with yet another system. I happen to think the case against the AofC is vastly overstated, but no matter how far we go in agreeing with its critics it didn’t fail. There was a national government in existence when the Constitution was written. Nothing’s to say it had to be replaced.
There was a confederation on paper, a series of treaties among independent republics. Said republics blew off their “constitutional” duties and responsibilities. They did not pay their taxes, they ignored the treaty of peace w/Britain, which was getting Americans killed on the frontier, and after 1783 hardly bothered to send delegates to Congress at all. What remained of the Confederation was dissolving from neglect. We owed an incredible sum of money and interest to repay war debt, but by 1787 did not have a dime in the treasury. We had no currency, no commercial laws, no navigation treaties with other countries. Western VA and NC counties over the mountains were cozying up to Spain. English troops occupied forts in the Northwest territory they were supposed to relinquish by treaty.
“the one the Constitution illegally (according to it) superceded”
So the people did not have the right to modify their government? What did we do in 1776?
Antis were appointed as delegates to the Philly convention. It was their duty to improve the Articles. About half couldn't be bothered to attend, the most famous being Patrick Henry. The convention determined early on that the Articles could not be improved to attain their goals of regulating commerce, navigation laws, national defense and adequate tax collection.
The grownups in attendance dealt with the situation.
Thanks for the ping. Good reading.